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I'm in graduate school, and part of my job is to read widely in my field. Scientific papers are very dense and I tend to read slow, so I average around 2-3 pages/hour. Consequently, long papers can take one or more days for me to finish, when I really need to get through them in a fraction of that time.

I've done a little experimentation, which led to minor advances (like batching all google queries until I come to a stopping place) but I still think I could do better.

Right now I'm faced with two conflicting problems:

  • If I take frequent breaks (a la pomodoro technique), I am more alert while reading but those breaks often get drawn out into 30+ minute interludes as email, classwork, or social things demand my attention. It's not uncommon for non-reading activities to average 50% of my "reading" time due to breaks and loss-of-productivity while switching tasks.

  • If I minimize breaks to avoid transaction cost, my mind wanders and I can't focus effectively. I'm pretty sure after 90 minutes of reading I might as well stop.

Any advice on how I can fuse these two approaches for optimal pages/hour?

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Pomodoro breaks are ~5 minutes for short breaks, ~10-15 for long ones. You manage to stop on time--sounds more like you just don't pay attention when you're supposed to re-start. –  Dave Newton Aug 14 '12 at 13:06
    
I would recommend David Seah's Fast Book Outliner for this purpose davidseah.com/blog/node/the-fast-book-outliner –  kobac Jan 8 '13 at 8:49

8 Answers 8

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I find the best way to get through scientific papers is to write as many of my own comments on the hard copy of the paper as possible - summary sentences, crossing out parts that were not relevant and writing ideas for things to follow up - when I'm done with a paper it looks like a mass of scribbles, but it has the advantage of engaging you properly with the work rather than being a passive consumer.

I try and read scientific papers in an empty lecture hall - there are very few distractions and there is a massive whiteboard for me to run through any proper examples if I need them. Plus you can do things like lay the pages of the paper out separately so that you can refer back and forth easily - that really helps with getting to the overall narrative of the work while also being able to look at the detail. (It's particularly helpful with the references pages, which you often have to refer to)

To add some stuff to an apparently popular answer - these days I also have google scholar open on a laptop nearby - this is for a couple of reasons - firstly because I often read something like "Unlike the heuristic approach of X" and it's worth having a quick skim of X.

Final thing is that it's definitely worth making notes of things you don't understand - the great thing about scientific papers is that if you don't get something you can (politely) email the authors...

EDIT - just as an addition to the 'you can email them' - when you get a little more bold in your academic career, it turns out it's much more effective to ring them (even if they are not in, referencing that you attempted to call in an email makes it clear that you are a genuine individual who isn't blanket emailing everybody...).

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The summaries should be written ideally without looking at the text. –  M.K. Jan 26 '12 at 21:42
    
you can also use the software Papers2 from memento to organize all your papers, notes and so on –  flow Feb 4 '12 at 6:54
    
Great idea Joe! –  RHaguiuda Apr 3 '12 at 11:53
    
@M.K. Why is that? For better retention? I guess the quality of the summary would suffer, wouldn't it? –  kioopi Nov 8 '12 at 11:46
    
I do the same thing. When I want to understand information dense writing, I take notes and re-write the subject in my own words. –  Chuck Conway Dec 17 '12 at 18:35

Tongue in cheek - but potentially relevent...

enter image description here from http://cheezburger.com/6716701184

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When I want to read a scientific paper as a part of my reserch I always use following method:

It seems to me that there are some issues and parts in a paper which should be taken into consideration. Paper's outcomes is one of the important , another important part is its methods.

First thing which I do in order to get the most beneficial parts of the paper is summarizing its outcomes. I write two or three paragraphs which includes all of essential things. Then, I focus on its methods, which are used in the paper.

So, pay attention to the goals of the paper. Then, find out the answers of the asked questions of paper. Finally, try to learn what methods have been used to conduct the research.

I think by applying these methods you can concentrate on the paper better.

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I have a little research experience, what I used to do is lock myself in a room alone, tell my parents and other family members not to disturb me even if it is dinner time or whatever on earth and be there alone for hours continuously.

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I find I get an overall quicker comprehension of complicated texts by reading them quickly multiple times rather than once slowly and trying to understand it all as I go.

Previously I would find myself continually rereading a paragraph trying to understand it only to find it would have become clear in the next few pages anyway. I would also feel overwhelmed that I'm not understanding what is being said and go do something easier.

Quickly reading many times eliminates the 'panic', ingrains through repetition and helps avoid losing the bigger picture from being too deep too long.

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I've started to notice that effect too. –  jurassic Feb 17 '12 at 23:14

I personally have three tactics that I utilize when I am studying, each of which strengthen my understanding of the materials and simultaneously give me a break from reading.

1) As mentioned by others, I make sure to take notes as I read. This gives me a small break from the reading materials and forces me to re-word the material in a way that I intuitively understand. Sometimes simply taking a cryptic sentence or paragraph and rewording it in my own language goes a LONG way in understanding and retention. Also, by giving the reading a break and writing notes, I am switching gears and giving a different part of my brain some badly needed oxygen. :)

2) When my eyes start to glaze over, I'll often stop reading and looking over the material for concepts that I don't quite understand. I will then Google these concepts or related keywords in hopes of finding out more. This can be refreshing because you are stepping away from material that you might be getting bored with or that is not engaging you, and instead are stepping into new and fresh material that expands your understanding in different ways.

3) The last technique for me is the most important. I take a break from the reading and I pretend that a person I know well approaches me about what I am reading. This person begins to ask me questions about the material and is curious, but has no background on the material at all. I find myself telling this imaginary person all about the material but in the easiest laymen terms possible so that my friend can understand. I also explain things in such a way that the topic remains interesting. Analogies are really useful here. When you are able to explain a complicated paper in laymen terms that is easy to understand, then you know the material very well. After reading for an hour or two, I will often spend 15 minutes or sometimes much longer explaining what I've learned to my imaginary friend. I often find that this is one of the ONLY ways that I can retain knowledge of a new topic in long-term memory. I learned this early on in my career as I have a certain person in my life that actually models my imaginary inquisitor.

I think that you will find that the 3 tactics above are all taking breaks from the reading AND enhancing your understanding of the materials at the same time. I can sometimes study a single topic for hours on end if I remember to balance these three tactics as needed. I hope this helps!

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Something that helps me getting into a 'reading zone' is a track of white noise. Often I'll start it fairly loud (certainly less load than music) to settle me down and then taper it back to very soft. It creates a sort of envelope for me.

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White Noise - on YouTube –  hellectronic Nov 6 '12 at 8:40
    
Nice call, hellectronic. You can also find such similar items such as ocean waves, etc. –  eflat Nov 6 '12 at 23:14

Another suggestion would be interacting with the book in a more active way, something that engages you in more than a way so reading is not strictly passive. For example, doing a mindmap as you read, maybe with some cool software like Xmind.

If you try this approach, maybe you could set your breaks by 'objectives', i.e., subjects, instead of time.

Another advantage of this system is that the summaries you create can be useful to review the documents at a glance later...

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